The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can’t impeach the Internet, so buckle up

Tweets by President Trump are displayed on a smartphone and tablet in this arranged photograph. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The joke about Twitter is that it is hell, a bad website where the #Resistance, the pro-Trump Internet, members of the media and certain politicians jockey for attention and control of the “narrative” (or, barring that, just create an alternative one). Specifically, Twitter is Dante’s fifth circle of hell, in which the wrathful fight endlessly in ships on the River Styx while the sullen gurgle in the muck until the world ends.

Here is what the wrathful fought about recently: Does the president know what a hyphen is? Should Twitter have suspended the account of a far-right militia that spoke of a “hot” civil war? And, of course, the developments at the core of it all: reports that President Trump might have tried to strong-arm a foreign government to kneecap a would-be presidential challenger, Joe Biden, and that Democrats might try to impeach him for it.

Live updates: Top Democrat warns White House ‘we’re not fooling around’ on impeachment inquiry

It’s an escalation of stakes many believe will cause the end times of online outrage and misinformation. But if Twitter really is hell, what does it matter if the dial controlling the intensity of our torment clicks from 11 to 12? Will we even feel the difference?

There are signs that Impeachment Internet is the same but more. Conspiracy-driven memes are already ping-ponging back and forth between the fringes and the conservative mainstream — all of which are then covered by the rest of the media. Meanwhile, #Resistance Twitter feeds its own memes and conspiracy-driven speculation into the mix. The president himself tweeted about “civil war,” an idea that is central to, among other things, the rhetoric of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has claimed for years that the United States is on the verge of a new civil war. Trolls on 4chan and other fringe boards are echoing the demands of Trump and other prominent conservatives by trying to unmask the government whistleblower whose reporting set the impeachment inquiry in motion.

Last week, Republican talking points accidentally sent to congressional Democrats mentioned the “deep state,” a phrase commonly used by conspiracy-minded Trump supporters (and, increasingly, the president and his mainstream allies) to refer to government bureaucrats thought to be working in secret to oust Trump. On Monday, “Arrest for Treason” trended after the president used the phrase in a tweet. On Tuesday, #IAmtheWhistleblower trended among the #Resistance set — an “I am Spartacus”-like gesture of solidarity that seemed to be aimed more at triggering conservatives than anything else.

Kamala Harris wants Trump suspended from Twitter for ‘harassment.' These 3 loopholes protect him.

“I am already seeing the disinformation and misinformation tick up,” said Brooke Binkowski, the former managing editor of Snopes, a website dedicated to investigating and dispelling popular myths. “I don’t know if I think we will be seeing more that’s different,” said Binkowski, who is now managing editor of another myth-busting site, Truth or Fiction. “I think we were just going to see more volume of the same crap that has been used for years now.”

The misinformation spike will hit a public that has grown accustomed to the intensity, even as it has left us exhausted and irritable. We may notice the change but only because it inflames a preexisting condition. And, so, misinformation and online culture experts wonder: What has the modern political Internet done to us, and could the Impeachment Internet make it worse?

“This reminds me, in a strange way, of yoga,” wrote Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who studies media manipulation and troll culture, in an email. “What happens when you practice regularly is that you create space in your body and mind — more space for deeper stretches, and more space for more awareness."

“What the Trump era requires,” Phillips said, “is a kind of dark psychic yoga that also creates space. More space for more vexation, and more space for more tolerance for that vexation.”

We’ve been stretching for a long time.

Misinformation online often feels like deja vu. The specifics might change, but the mechanisms remain the same. Pizzagate was a baseless conspiracy theory that went viral just after the 2016 elections; it accused a Washington pizza place of harboring a pedophile ring with connections to the Clintons and other Democrats. The pattern repeated with QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy theory that also accuses the Clintons and other Democrats of being involved in child sex-trafficking. In both cases, the theory moved from the fringes to the mainstream due to the aggressiveness of the pro-Trump Internet and the curiosity of the mainstream media.

“They are already invoking Hillary Clinton and George Soros as blame/explanation for what’s happening in Ukraine, for gods sake,” Binkowski wrote, referring to the billionaire liberal philanthropist long viewed by the right as a boogeyman. “They are the exact same as what got pushed on us in 2016. It’s insulting, really.”

Playing ‘Untitled Goose Game’ is the new punching a wall

The problem doesn’t just have to do with the content of online misinformation, according to Binkowski; it’s also the volume. Trump, and many key figures in the pro-Trump Internet, are good at overwhelming their perceived enemies.

The Impeachment Internet will never just be about impeachment; it’ll be about impeachment and Joe Biden and the Clintons and Soros and the media — and random people on Twitter and outrages from years ago that can still go viral if shared in the right place. It will be about 10, 20, 100 things at once. It is an inseparable blend of fact and fiction and anger and fear and lamentation. It will be hot and exhausting.

“There is only so much you can react to in one day or even an hour,” Binkowski said, “and it exhausts fact-checkers and reporters and eventually burns everybody out and makes them stop caring.” The only way to escape, she said, is to log off and focus on offline things that make you happy. But Phillips admitted she struggled with doing that, too.

Phillips said she realized recently how exhausted the Trump era had made her. She was attending a conference in Canada when news broke that Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, had worn brownface at a party years back. There were pictures. The people around her seemed genuinely shocked.

“Watching a conference full of Canadian educators react to an American-style scandal was surprisingly revealing,” Phillips said. “They were shocked! They were capable of being shocked! They talked about it nonstop for two days!”

“The Canadians’ reactions were normal,” she said. “We don’t get to be normal anymore.”

On Wednesday, the president tweeted that the impeachment inquiry was “BULLSHIT,” and fired off a rampage of insults at various Democrats. The trending hashtags were #TrumpMeltdown and #DoNothingDemocrats.

More reading:

Amateur pro-Trump ‘sleuths’ scramble to unmask whistleblower: ‘Your president has asked for your help’

Trump’s moat idea is ridiculous — but it isn’t funny

The dangerous cycle that keeps conspiracy theories in the news — and Trump’s tweets